Russian diplomats have been focusing on domestic turmoil in the U.S. as the Kremlin prepares to face a hostile administration led by President-Elect Joe Biden, and as the world condemned the re-arrest of pro-democracy activist Alexei Navalny on his return to Moscow on Sunday.
As the final weeks of President Donald Trump‘s term have collapsed into chaos and insurrection, America’s rivals have been gleefully lamenting the supposed decline of U.S. democracy. Tensions remain high as Biden prepares to take office, with American adversaries watching closely for further signs of unrest and weakness in Washington, D.C. and state capitals around the country.
Russian diplomats, no strangers to disinformation and goading, have gone on the offensive as they prepare to deal with a new president who has vowed to increase the pressure on the Kremlin over its human rights abuses, covert operations abroad and territorial expansion.
This weekend, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova—seemingly trying to stoke political tensions in the U.S.—claimed that Trump supporters had been contacting her inquiring about how to apply for Russian citizenship, fearing persecution under a Biden presidency.
“The most frequent commentary I receive via social networks from the United States…is how to receive Russian citizenship,” Zakharova said in an interview with the Rossiya-1 television channel, according to the state-backed Tass news agency.
“Welcome to reality,” she said, claiming that those contacting her were primarily Republicans afraid of what would happen to them once Biden is in office, despite the president-elect’s vow to be a leader for “all Americans.”
Soon after the Capitol was stormed earlier this month, Zakharova was among those blaming American democracy for the violence rather than the far-right Trump supporters who sought to overturn Biden’s electoral victory.
She told journalists on January 7: “We would point out that the electoral system in the U.S. is archaic and doesn’t meet modern democratic standards, creates the possibility for various violations, and the American media has become an instrument of political infighting.”
Trump supporters’ fears of persecution have been exacerbated by a crackdown on Trump and extremist accounts by major social media platforms, plus the steady trickle of charges against pro-Trump rioters who stormed the Capitol earlier this month in an effort to overturn the election results.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden is the most famous example of an American fleeing to Russia for fear of persecution. Snowden sought asylum in Russia to avoid prosecution in the U.S. for leaking confidential documents detailing the National Security Agency’s massive and illegal surveillance of Americans and their allies abroad.
Giving Snowden refuge was a propaganda win for Putin, who was able to present Russia as a safe destination for those fighting against authoritarianism and government abuse of power.
But Russia is no bastion of unfettered expression or political freedom. In recent years, President Vladimir Putin‘s government has significantly expanded its control of the internet, censoring dissent and isolating critics. Meanwhile, journalists and activists who have spoken out against Putin’s authoritarian regime have been harassed, imprisoned and even killed.
Just this weekend, opposition leader Navalny was arrested in Moscow on his return from Germany, where he had been recuperating after surviving an apparent assassination attempt in August. Authorities said Navalny had violated the terms of a suspended prison sentence from 2014, which the democracy activist maintains was politically motivated.
The arrest prompted quick condemnation from democratic nations including the U.S. Biden’s incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Navalny “should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable.”
Sullivan added that continued attacks on Navalny “are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday dismissed international outrage as political posturing, and the Navalny arrest as a useful way to divert American attention from tensions at home.
“We saw how they latched onto yesterday’s news of Navalny’s return to Russia,” Lavrov said of Western politicians at a press conference in Moscow. “You can feel how glad they are to copy the same statements.”
“They are glad because it seems that this makes Western politicians think that in this way, they can distract from the deepest crisis that the liberal model of development finds itself in,” Lavrov added.
Putin loyalists were quick to jump on the insurrection at the Capitol this month. Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s Federation Council, said in a Facebook post, “The celebration of democracy is over,” arguing the U.S. had lost its claim as the world’s democratic model.
Former lawmaker and Putin ally Sergei Markov used a common Russian disinformation tactic, falsely equating the Capitol riot—which sought to overturn the results of a democratic election in favor of far-right authoritarianism—to pro-democracy demonstrations against Moscow-backed governments in eastern Europe and racial justice demonstrations the U.S.
“Most of all, [what] amazes [is] the awful out-of-control hypocrisy,” Markov said on Facebook. “The same politicians, experts, and media who only recently justified the seizure of government buildings in Ukraine, Belarus, and the street riots against Trump by supporters of Black Lives Matter and Antifa, now are categorically condemning the storming of the Congress,” he said.